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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The last thing the Northwest needs is another zealot with a compound

UPDATED: Mon., June 14, 2021

Owen Benjamin's 10-acre parcel of land had several vehicles and a wall tent present on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, near Bonners Ferry, ID.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Owen Benjamin's 10-acre parcel of land had several vehicles and a wall tent present on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, near Bonners Ferry, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Oh, swell. Another racist zealot with a “compound.” Just what we need.

What is it about our corner of the country that is so appealing to anti-social extremists looking to start their own gun clubs and white sanctuaries? In a nation loaded with out-of-the-way country places populated by folks willing to turn a blind eye to armed radicalism, how did the backwoods of the Northwest become such a mecca?

We’re just neighborly, I guess.

A hack comedian who has evolved into an alt-right online bro, Owen Benjamin, is the latest carpetbagger looking to create the dream of a separatist homeland here.

Benjamin has purchased 10 acres in Boundary County and is gathering donations for the creation of a community there, which he sometimes has described as a back-to-the-land adventure for families, and sometimes as a paramilitary redoubt against the tyranny of the modern world, according to reporting in The Spokesman-Review and the Kootenai Valley Times, an online news site that first reported on the development.

The project’s supporters name-check Ruby Ridge as an aspirational dream, claiming in one pitch to donors that they intend to create “a new Ruby-Ridge-style compound” for Benjamin’s adherents, who refer to themselves as “bears.”

Maybe they never heard how that story ended.

Benjamin has used various names for this “dream bear village,” many with an ursine theme: Ursa Rio, Bearteria Sanctuary and the Great Bear Trail.

The project has attracted media attention all over the world, including in England, where the Daily Mail included this tart little aside about the irony of the bear theme: “It is unclear if Benjamin – who has made multiple homophobic pronouncements on his videos – realizes that the word ‘bear’ is common slang in the gay community for a large, hairy man.”

Benjamin was a B-list comedian who has become notorious for saying increasingly bigoted and conspiratorial things. What you see in his online persona is similar to what you see in many doubled-down, “red-pilled” racist bros and MAGA trolls – the cocky bluntness, the proud-to-be-terrible pose, the confidence-in-ignorance. They’re in love with being jerks.

Check out what Benjamin did in response to the reporting of Mike Weland, a longtime Idaho journalist now running the Kootenai Valley Times.

Two men who said they were associates of Benjamin’s showed up at Weland’s home, harangued him for ruining Benjamin’s life, and accused him of being a pedophile, Weland has said. In an online video, Benjamin mocked Weland repeatedly for using a wheelchair, called him “the pedophile guy,” and made fun of the wheelchair ramps in his home.

Who wouldn’t want to be this guy’s neighbor? Who wouldn’t want to join him in the woods to skin deer and make butter?

Benjamin has been a presence within many of the interlocking circles of the far-right web world, from those nearer to the mainstream to those on the fringiest fringes. He’s been a guest on Dennis Prager’s “Prager University,” which passes for a knowledgeable space in some circles, and Joe Rogan’s podcast (where Rogan urged him to stop with his outrageous social media “mental diarrhea” before the two apparently had a falling-out). He’s been a guest on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire – and a guest host of Infowars, where he argued that the moon landing was faked.

A full reading of his bigoted CV isn’t required, but for a taste of it, know he’s used the N-word to refer to President Obama, argued that too many Jews are “scheme-y, sneaky,” claimed Stephen Spielberg was a pedophile who cast a girl in a movie who was then sodomized to death on the set, and pooh-poohed the KKK.

“The Klan is less offensive than baby murder and socialism and disarming a population. If you’re going to order what is more offensive, what is scarier, between the Ku Klux Klan, disarming a population, murdering babies, and the creation of a state-run centralized society, if you don’t think that the KKK is by far the least problem, you are – ladies and gentlemen – retarded,” Benjamin said.

“The Ku Klux Klan never killed babies. They hung, like, eight dudes. It’s been like 50 years – big … deal.”

He’s the kind of guy we can all wish would live somewhere else.

But here he is. The latest racist yahoo living out the white homeland dream – following in the decades-old pattern that ranges from the Aryan Nations to the Marble Community. The leader of a neo-Nazi terrorist group, The Base, has purchased 30 acres in Ferry County, with the apparent aim of building a compound.

The number of extremist groups remains significant here. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 22 hate groups operating in Washington in its latest accounting, and seven such groups in Idaho.

The slightly less awful version of this separatist impulse is the movement pushing to turn Eastern Washington into a 51st “Liberty State,” while a similarly ridiculous right-wing secession movement in Oregon is attempting to join a new “Greater Idaho.”

All of it in service of the idea of a separate place for the right kind of people.

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the standoff at Ruby Ridge in Boundary County. If you were around then, you would know it for what it was: a tragedy in which a mother, a child and a federal agent were killed.

No one in their right mind wants a second one.

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